by Leilah Wendell
The best way to begin an article of this scope is with one of the most frequent requests we receive via The Azrael Project Newsletter; that being, more information on the history of Death personified. It is the aim of this article to provide some sort of general, worldwide, multicultural concordance of this phenomena
This extensive article includes some of the more well known, along with some lesser known Death “incarnations”, and I use that term loosely, as in many cultures, the Angel of Death can be quite an adept shapeshifter. We have tried to cull together as much information and as many examples of Death in personification as possible. I’m certain that there are many more. To include them all, we would have a book of encyclopedic proportions! Prior to this compendium, if one were seeking information on the Death entity, you would literally need to research thousands of books and pour through stacks of research papers. With this project, you need look no further than here to begin your journey.
One of the earliest known depictions of a personified Death was found at Catal Huyuk, a Neolithic settlement in Anatolia dating from the 7th Millennium B.C… Death takes the form represented by gigantic black birds of vulture-like appearance menacing headless human corpses. Many Stone Age cave paintings depict Death as a winged being, tall and extremely thin and pale in complexion. In these earliest renditions, Death was not given a name, simply an image, that to the people of that day, was representative of a major force or “deity”. Something much larger than life that could never be appeased, no matter how many “sacrifices” were given unto It. The assignation of names and titles, and even personality, came much later as the world grew “larger” nd more diverse in the eyes of man. When humankind literally separated himself from the animal kingdom and began to think about the meaning of life, while always having the recognize the inevitability of Death.
We begin with Azrael, a name of Hebrew derivation. While not the earliest known appellation, it is probably the most recognized name given the Angel of Death in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world. Literally meaning “whom God helps”, Azrael remains at all times a legate of the supreme consciousness, which for the multi-cultural air of this book, we shall refer to as the “Godsoul”.
From Islamic teachings, it is written that “when Michael, Gabriel and Israfel failed to provide seven handfuls of earth for the creation of Adam, the 4th angel on this mission, Azrael, succeeded, and because of this feat, he was appointed to separate body from soul”. (Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics- Hastings). It is said that Azrael keeps a scroll containing the name of every person born in the world. The time of death…is not known to Azrael. When the day of death approaches, Allah lets a leaf inscribed with the person’s name drop from his throne. Azrael reads the name and within forty days must separate the soul from the body. He is often described, in the Koran, as a “divine being endowed with immense power so awesome that he had to be restrained in 70,000 chains of a thousand years journey’s length each. By the Godsoul’s command; it is written, Azrael spread his wings and opened his eyes and upon seeing this spectacle, the angels fainted away.” It is further stated that Azrael was given “all of the powers of the heavens to enable him to master death.” The Koran also recorded the following statement of a man engaging in conversation with Death: “When people lament and weep too much over the death of a person, the Angel of Death will stand at the door and say, ‘what cause have you for such violent complaint? I am only the messenger of God and have done His bidding, and if you rebel against Him, I shall return often to take one of your house.”
Although this passage may seem overly ominous, it typifies man’s personal interaction with a personified Death, particularly in the pantheon we are discussing, so heavily influenced by religious fear and the dominance of their God. Nearly all historical literature treats Death as a divine creation of the Godsoul for purposes of separating the soul from the body at the time of passing. This is well exemplified in the following excerpt, also from Moslem teachings: “When a righteous person dies, the Angel of Death comes with a host of divinity carrying sweet odors of paradise and makes the soul leave the body like a drop taken out of a bucket of water. Though, when a wicked person dies, Death comes in the company of demons, who pull the soul out as with iron spits.”
In Jewish literature, it is written that “Azrael appears to our spirit in a form determined by our beliefs, actions and dispositions during life. He may even manifest invisibly so that a man may die of a rose in aromatic pain…or of a rotting stench.” In Islamic lore, it is said that “Azrael, the Angel of Death, is veiled before the creatures of God with a million veils and that his true immensity is vaster than the heavens, and the east and the west are between his hands like a dish on which all things have been set to balance.” It is further written, “that when the soul sees Azrael, it ‘falls in love’, and thus is withdrawn from the body as if by a seduction.”
In some Jewish folklore, the Angel of Death is called Sammael (Samael), meaning the “drug of God” since it was believed that his sword was tipped with gall. In the Talmud, ‘Abodah Zarah 20’, Sammael is described as “altogether full of eyes. At the time of death, he (the Angel of Death) takes his stand above the place of ones head with his sword drawn and a drop of poison suspended on its tip.” Often, Death is depicted as bearing some form of weapon or energy directing instrument; a knife, a sword, a scythe, a shaft of light, or a rod of fire, to name a few. Perhaps one of the more pronounced cases of Death’s visitation in this example, is the tale of Joshua ben Levi, a Talmudian scholar. When time came for him to die, the Angel of Death (Sammael, in this case) appeared to him whereby Joshua demanded to be shown his place in ‘paradise’. When the angel consented to this, Joshua demanded the angel’s knife so that Death would not use it to frighten him on the way. This request was also granted, whereupon Joshua sprang with the
weapon over the wall of paradise. Death, who by Talmudic law was not permitted to enter, caught hold of Joshua’s garment; but Joshua swore that he would not come out. The Godsoul then declared that Joshua should not leave paradise unless he was absolved of his oath. The Angel of Death then demanded back his knife, and, upon Joshua’s refusal, a heavenly voice rang out, “Give him back the knife because the children of men have need of it!”
Mankind understands the symbolic power of weaponry. In Joshua’s case, the image of the knife symbolizes power over life and death, as well as the means to inflict death at higher command.
While Azrael was the most prominent name mentioned in this culture, in certain Arabic lore, Death is occasionally referred to by another name, Iblis, as in the Arabian Nights Tale, The Angel of Death and the Proud King; And Iblis came (to the proud king)…so the king bowed his head to him and he said, ‘I am the Angel of Death and I purpose to take thy soul.’ Replied the king, ‘Have patience with me a little whilst I return to my house and take leave of my people and children…’ ‘By no means so,’ answered the angel; ‘thou shalt never return nor look on them again, for the fated term of thy life is past.’ So saying, he took the soul of the king…and departed thence.”
Longfellow makes mention of Azrael in a poem included in Tales of a Wayside Inn, wherein a Spanish Jew tells a tale of Azrael and King Solomon. The king is entertaining a “learned man” who is a rajah. As they walk, a figure in the twilight air is gazing intently at the man. The rajah asks Solomon: “What is yon shape, that, pallid as the dead, is watching me, as if he sought to trace in the dim light the features of my face?” The king calmly tells his guest that it is Azrael, the Angel of Death. The man then asks Solomon to get him as far away from Azrael as possible. With the aid of his magic ring, the king sends him off to India. Azrael asks Solomon who the man was who left so suddenly. The king gives Azrael the name, and Azrael thanks the king for sending the man off to India, since he was on his way “to seek him there.”
Osiris is the Egyptian embodiment of the “Death Energy”. Although not necessarily considered the “personification” of Death in particular, (as the Egyptian pantheon is divided into may higher and lower aspects) he is described in ancient texts as a “dark lord, having beautiful yet terrible dark eyes and an equally dark complexion: He is also said to have reached a height of five and a half yards! Egyptian concept of a true, anthropomorphic personification of the Death entity was best exemplified as Anubis (who is actually an “aspect” of Osiris). While Osiris is considered “God of the Dead”, Anubis is the “Guardian of the Dead” whose function was to weigh the heart of the deceased against a feather to determine the soul’s place in eternity.
Seker, is an even older version of Egyptian Death personified, particularly in the area of ancient Memphis. He was said to be enthroned in a region of utter blackness and is depicted in the form of a mummy and called the “greatest god who was in the beginning and dwelleth in darkness.” Originally, as “death gods” go, Seker and Osiris had many attributes in common, and the eventual fusion of the two was the result of the triumph of Osiris over the many “lesser” and varied Egyptian death gods. While Seker represented death as absolute and final, Osiris represented the death which was merely a temporary point of transition. Egyptian mythology is rife with Death allegory. This excerpt from the Coffin Text of the Middle Kingdom (circa 2160-1580 B.C..) vividly shows how the Egyptians personified Death very realistically: “Save me from the claws of him who takes for himself what he sees: May the glowing breath of his mouth not take me away.”
We could no doubt spend this book alone detailing the many, varied incarnations and aspects of Death in the Egyptian pantheon. However, there are far more specific books available on general Egyptian history and belief that would cover that in length.
Thanatos, the Greek embodiment of Death is described as “the figure of a priest in sable garments and the twin brother of Morpheus (sleep).” The Greeks endeavored to exclude any thought of his gloomy nature by viewing him as a “gentle god, who came quietly upon the dying.” Here, again, Death is personified with a secondary aspect, Charon, the ferryman who carries the souls of the dead across the Lethe, (which means ‘river of forgetfulness’). It is from this culture that we get the concept of “paying the ferryman” for passage to the other side. If no payment was rendered unto him, usually the equivalent of a farthing or penny, the soul was destined to wander beside the river eternally. Hence, the practice of putting pennies on a dead man’s eyes.
Charon, himself, was not a part of Greek mythology until approximately the 5th Century BC., when an inscription praised him as “You who release many men from toil.” He is often portrayed as a stern and formidable old man who insists that the rules of passage be respected. This is well illustrated in Bullfinch’s retelling of an incident first described by Virgil: “Charon, old and squalid, but strong and vigorous…was receiving passengers of all kinds into his boat. Magnanimous heroes, boys and unmarried girls, as numerous as the leaves that fall at autumn, or the flocks that fly southward at the approach of winter. They stood pressing for a passage and longing to touch the opposite shore. But the stern ferryman took in only such as he chose, driving the rest back. Aeneas, wondering at the sight, asked the Sibyl, ‘Why this discrimination?’ She answered, ‘Those who are taken on board the bark are the souls of those who have received due burial rites; the host of others who have remained unburied are not permitted to pass the flood, but wander a hundred years, and flit to and fro about the shore, till at last they are taken over.’ Aeneas, displaying the sacred golden bough, finally persuades Charon to make an exception and allow him, one of the living, to cross into the realm of the dead in order to bury a fallen comrade and see his father. ” It is from the account of this highly unusual round-trip that we have some of history’s most detailed impressions of the “lower world” in which the souls of the dead are to be found. “Charon with eyes like burning coals herds them in, and with a whistling oar flails on the stragglers to his wake of souls.” (from Dante’s Inferno, 1300AD). Although, in classical mythology, Charon is usually imagined as a grim and solemn figure with an awesome task to perform, he has also been portrayed with humor, and even tender passion.
It is interesting to note that the name Charon is also mentioned in Etruscan history as “The god of the dead” replete with an image painted in the tomb of Orca-Tarquina (5th century BC). It is highly likely that Charon was “imported” into the Greek pantheon from this contemporary region.
Modern Greek folklore has transmuted the concept of Charon into a whole new personification. Death is no longer the withered ferryman, but rather the driver of the “death coach”. In many parts of Greece, it is believed that, as time passed on and men became less connected to their gods (i.e., more concerned with material gains rather than spiritual pursuits) Death had to venture into the land of the living to retrieve souls. Hence, the personification of the death-coach, a black plumed, funerary coach pulled by huge black horses and driven by a faceless driver with burning eyes, who is in effect, Death Himself. Still today, in the age of motorized transport, if one were to hear the prance of hooves coming down the road, all ears are tuned in the hopes the coach doesn’t stop in front of one’s home. It is believed that if the death-coach stops to claim a soul, the driver would dismount and knock twice on the door signaling that someone in that house had just died.
To the ancient Romans, Orcus was the god of death and was described as a “pale divinity, almost devoid of flesh and furnished with immense, black wings.” His function was to carry the souls of the dead to the underworld, which they believed was literally a place beneath the earth’s surface. Here, as well, Death is
personified with more than one aspect. Februus, of Etruscan origin, was also an incarnation of Death in ancient Rome. He had a whole month set aside as ‘the month of the dead’, our equivalent of February. Death also had a third aspect, a female personification, Libitina, the Goddess of Funerals. This triumvirate of deities comprised primary Roman belief. However, there was still another, more pronounced and detailed female Roman personification of Death. Her face was seldom portrayed, nor were temples dedicated to her, or were sacrifices offered her, as they were to Orcus, her male equivalent. Today, her very name has sunk into such obscurity that it is seldom mentioned when the gods and goddesses of antiquity are reviewed. Her name was Mors, (a familiar derivation of much of our current reference to death) and she was worshipped by the ancients and often sung about by their poets. This female deity, remembered today mostly from Roman verse, was a reigning personification of Death. It was Mors, pale, wan and emaciated…whom the poets describe as “ravenous, treacherous and furious, roving about…ready to swallow up all who came her way.” She was manifest as a black robed, dark winged figure who might, like an enormous bird of prey, hover above her intended victim until the moment came to seize it. In M.A. Dwight’s 1864 epic, Grecian & Roman Mythology, it is noted that “Mors was not so honoured with temples and sacrifices because Death is inexorable, inaccessible to entreaties and unmoved by prayers and offerings.” Death in the form of this deadly, female hunter is a striking figure to contemplate, especially when we consider that most contemporary personifications portray Death as masculine, if a gender is specified at all, and that, in fact, women much more than men, provide care and comfort to the terminally ill. Mors appears then to represent, the type of very powerful female deity who laid claim to many cultures, as well as to human imagination, before the patriarchal god became the dominant image.
There is also another interesting correlation to the image of Mors. Within the often blended pantheons of ancient Etruscan and ancient Roman, there is mentioned another feminine anthropomorphism of Death; Tuchulcha (from the Etruscan) who is described as a bird-like being with snakes for hair, who’s menacing stare, it is said, could kill with but a glance.
In the Tibetan pantheon, Shiva (Siva) is the penultimate archetype of Death, again, with a secondary aspect called Mahakala, who is Death personified. Shiva is referred to as “the formed”, and Mahakala, “the formless” embodiment of the Death energy. This passage from Aghora, At the Left Hand of God by Robert Svoboda describes them best; “Mahakala has no limitation of any kind whatsoever, at least in the universe we know. He has no form at all, none. At least Shiva manifests a form we can concentrate on. Mahakala, being the utterly formless, which means He can assume all forms at will.”
Shiva is attributed as a “compassionate yet terrible divinity whose sight made even Vishnu, (the Tibetan aspect of the great Godsoul) wince”. Mahakala is said “to make everyone cry, and cries himself out of the joy of releasing imprisoned souls.” Rudra, is another name found in this complex pantheon. Literally translated, it means ‘the crier” or “he who makes others cry.” Rudra is the ancient name for Shiva, and in texts “is so called because he makes everyone cry who comes into contact with Him because He separates them from their limited existence to which they are tightly attached.” Of Rudra, it is further written, “By my magnanimity I have removed this individual from all the pains and miseries of existence, and the fellow was not even aware of my presence. Now he is truly at peace. People are fools to cry for their dead; They should cry for themselves.”
In Svoboda’s Aghora, it states, “Everyone is afraid of dying, which explains why no one is willing to love Mahakala. Only two persons in all our scriptures have loved Mahakala, and both of them became immortal…Destruction is necessary but, unfortunately, no one is willing to face Death. Even for Rama and Krisha, who were real incarnations of God, there was one moment of shock, one tremor, when Mahakala appeared before them…The sight of Mahakala is so terrible that even God incarnate quails before Him…”
There are a variety of “faces” of Death in Indian culture, dependant upon particular religious “sects” and beliefs. Kali, a feminine aspect of Death comes immediately to mind. Although, she is referred to more as “the Destroyer” or “the Devourer”, no doubt she embodies the same energy as Mahakala. Kali, “The Black Mother”, is portrayed rather frightfully. She is naked, dishevelled, wild-eyed and maniacal. In her hands she brandishes a blood-stained knife and a bloody human head. A necklace of skulls lies on her breast. She is often depicted, in Indian art, as having one foot on Shiva, who is lying on the ground like a corpse. Kali has many different names and faces in Indian culture.
Yama is called the “King of Death” in Buddhism, and certain Hindu pantheons. He is also referred to as judge of the dead, evaluating their activities while on earth to determine their fate after death. He is described as having “flesh of green or black, and robes of blood-red. He wears and crown and a flower in his hair and has many eyes, legs and arms. Each appendage bearing mystic implements and human skulls.” (Much like the images of Kali.). Another of Yama’s names is Vajra-Bhairava, which literally means “terrible lightning”. Yet another name that pops up is Daikoku-ten, of Oriental Buddhist origin, and is pretty much the equivalent of Siva/Mahakala. He is called “the Great Black One”.
There are numerous tales from India’s vast apocryphal texts of human interaction with Yama. One in particular describes “that it is difficult to prevail on Yama when he comes at the appointed hour to seek his victim on earth. However, the gentle and beautiful Savitri, wife of Satyavan, succeeded in persuading the god of death to give her back her husband…As Yama was bearing away Satyavan’s soul, his wife followed obstinantly…until Yama was so moved by this fidelity and love, that he offered her fulfillment of her wish, provided she did not ask to have her husband brought back to life!”
Emma-O is referred to as “the King of the Dead” in ancient Oriental Buddhism. It is said that he became Death because he was the first man to die. His description is one of a red-faced, angry looking deity with a coarse beard, attired in judges robes with a berreta bearing the sigil of a king. In his right hand, he has a tablet, the emblem of official authority. In his left hand, he holds a staff with two accusing faces on top; one called “The Seeing Eye”, and the other, “The Sensitive Nose”. Emma is still part of the popular pantheons of Buddhism throughout Japan and China.
Secular Chinese Buddhism has another name for the Lord of Death, Yen-wang, whose job it is to decide when one’s time is up. He then severs the mystical cord that connects body to soul. It is from Eastern beliefs that we get the concept of the “silver cord”, that etheric “umbilical” that connects body to soul until the time of death.
In the modern Japanese pantheon, the “Goddess of Death” is called Yuki-Onne, which literally means “the Snow Queen” who “chills to numbness those she takes so as to make their transition as peaceful and painless as possible.” She also serves to cut the cord at life’s end.
Hel was labeled the “goddess of Death” in the Germanic and Scandinavian lands. She was said to dwell in “the land of shades called Niflheim”. Her face was portrayed as half normal, and half the colour of the night sky (much like images of Shiva). It was said that Odin (the Germanic equal to God) “gave her power over nine worlds, so that she could determine where everyone should dwell after death.” There are a lot of feminine Death personifications in this part of the world. There is also mention of Freya, leader of the mysterious Valkyries, (the airborne horsewomen of death) as being a prominent Death allegory in Norse mythology. Also, from this part of the world, we get the name Kalma, a death goddess of Finnish origins, where we also find the name Nga, “God of Death”. In certain ancient Finnish folklore, Tuonela was the “Domain of Death”, and is surrounded by “Death’s river”. The dead are carried across the waters by “Death’s Maiden” at the darkest moment of night.
In many Slavic and Baltic lands, Death appeared simply as a woman dressed in white who carried souls to “Vela”, a world shrouded in grey mist and cold. Folklore, particularly that of the Black Forest region, is rife with “Grim Reaper” type images, and/or Death generally personified as a withered farmer with scythe in hand who doubled as Lord of the Harvest. This concept still remains with us throughout many Pagan traditions where deities are heavily tied into the seasons, and nature in general.
Another, similar image is derived from ancient Celtic and Gaul; Sucellos, the “Harvester of Souls”, who was described as a “mighty striker with scythe in hand”. This entity was also called Silvanus in southern Gaul. We get much of the origin of our current Grim Reaper imagery from this part of the world. In certain Celtic pantheons, Death is again, given aspects. One of the more well known is the female triplicity known as The Morrigan, “the Queen of Shades”. Consisting of actually three spirits, it was personified as a large, black crow or raven, much like the Roman Mors, sweeping down to catch its prey. Another, lesser known Celtic personification was Ankou, known in Brittany and rural Ireland by the sound of his creaking cart traveling the roads at night, picking up his latest victims. He need only open his cart door, or touch his intended, and life would flee. This, too, is a similar mythos, alikened to modern Greek folklore mentioned earlier, even though they were culturally, worlds apart.
In certain early Welsh folklore, the name Gwyn Ab Nuud is mentioned as “god of the hunt who gathers lost souls and escorts them to the land of the dead on a white horse.”
Quetzalcoatl was the god of the west and of magic in ancient Central America. Depicted as a plumed serpent with two faces, one of life, and one of death. He was both creator, and destroyer. Lord of Life and Death, and the embodiment of the Death energy whose personified aspect was called Miquiztli, literally meaning “death”. If we go further north, into Mexico, we find the name Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec “God of Death” whose function was to guide the souls of the dead safely to the next world. The name Kukulcan is also briefly mentioned as a “manifest Death”, but this appears to be more of a latter corruption of Quetzalcoatl.
In present day Mexican folk art, the personified Death is called Santa Muerte, “Saint Death” and is depicted as a white-robed skeleton. In one hand He holds the scales of balance, and in the other, either the earth, or the more traditional scythe. During Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” celebrations on November 2nd, one can find depictions of Death throughout Mexican culture, from its local shops, to churches and elaborate home altars, to candy and children’s toys.
Baron Samedi is Death personified in the Haitian Voudon pantheon, and is described quite vividly, as a tall, black man sporting a tail coat and top-hat. He has a long, white beard and eyeless sockets in his head. When invoked, he acknowledges by flapping his coat tails and tipping his hat. He is said to be a very educated speaker, yet his comments and mannerisms can be quite lewd. Offerings of rum are sure to get one into his good graces. Here, as well, we find that Death has other aspects; Baron Cimitere, who is literally, “Ruler of the Cemetery”, and his counterpart, Baron LaCrosse, who is the “spirit of the Shadow of the Cross”. These grand loa (or great spirits) are often accompanied by petra loa (demi-gods) called the Gede Loa, or “Spirits of the Cemetery”.
The Haitian feminine form of the Loa of Death is the pale, thin and wraithlike Madam Brigette, who serves very much the same function as Baron Samedi, but with a few more Kali-like attributes of “whirlwind-like change and balance”. If we trace Voudon tradition back to its African source, we find the name Oya, whose name translates to mean “she who tears”. Goddess of storms, hurricanes, radical change and Death, she is portrayed as a whirlwind who literally rips away the veil between this world and the next. Wearing grass skirts or costumes of multi-coloured rags, she is a fierce and steadfast guardian of the cemetery, particularly
over the souls of women. She has also found her way into the Santeria religion where she fills a similar role as Baron Cimitere; as one who watches over the dead and guides their passage.
African culture is particularly rife will archetypal Death images. The Egungun, of West Africa are a group of “spirits of Death” who appear only as cloth draped entities and are known to dance at various festival and tribal functions. Gaunab is another of the many African personifications of Death. Referred to primarily as “Chief of the Dead”, his function and images are very similar to that of a counterpart found in the Congo, who is not mentioned by any specific name, but simply as “one of the sons of the great god Ngai. (This is not the only culture where Death is referred to as “the son of” someone. In Polynesia, for example, Hine-Nui-Te-Po, or “The Great Lady of Night” is mentioned as being the “mother of Death”).
There are numerous, oral tribal legends telling of human interaction with Death in African culture. For instance, in Baganda legend, “Kintu, the first man, was permitted, after many trials and tests, to marry one of the daughters of heaven. God sends the pair to live on earth and gives them gifts, including a hen. He told them to hurry lest they meet Death (the bride’s brother), and not to come back if they had forgotten anything. The woman forgets the hen’s feed and goes back for it despite the warning, at which God, in His displeasure, grants Death’s request to accompany them. Kintu appeals to God, who relents and sends another of His “sons” (called Digger) to take Death back to heaven. Silence was ordained during the pursuit as Digger chases Death who has hidden in the ground, but the cries of children break the spell of silence and Death is allowed to remain on earth and strike down all living things.”
There is another, very odd African story, told by folks living on the shores of Lake Kivu, which shows God trying to save men from death but giving up in exasperation. According to this tale, God made man to be immortal and kept a close watch on Death who was always trying to pick quarrels with men and provoke them to a fight which He knew He would win. One day God was away and Death killed and old woman. She was buried. But, after a few days, her grave began to heave as if she were coming back to life. Her daughter-in-law poured boiling water on the grave and beat it with a pestle saying “Die: what is dead should stay dead!” The grave was then quiet and the old woman was really dead. God returned, and seeing that the old woman was not there, asked what happened. When he was told, he said he would hunt Death down. Death fled…and met another old woman to whom he said, “Hide me and I shall reward you.” She let him hide under her skirt and he entered her body. God caught them and decided that, since she was so old, it would be best to kill her and tear Death from her body and kill him as well. But Death slipped through God’s fingers, and this time, persuaded a young girl to hide him in her belly. God despaired: if human beings kept on thwarting his efforts to save them, he might as well give it up as a bad job. So, he let Death do as he pleased.
One of the strangest stories of all comes from the Ewe-speakers of West Africa. Yiyi the spider (a panthaic demiurge) cadged meat from Death during a famine. Death had plenty of meat because he had made a great clearing in the forest and set traps in it. In return for continual supplies, Yiyi gave Death his daughter in marriage. Death told his new wife not to go through the clearing when she went to fetch water. But, one rainy day she did and was caught in a trap. Her husband chopped her up for the larder! When Yiyi discovered what had happened, he attacked Death with a knife and ran away in terror to the village with Death in pursuit. Death had never been to the village before, and as he lay in wait for Yiyi, he amused himself by shooting at the women as they went down to the river for water. He then realized that here was game enough, and he had no need to set traps for animals.
The Chippewa Indians have a unique legend about Death. It is said that once there was a great magician who came to the Chippewa nation wanting to make them immortal. He advised them to give “amicable greeting to the first stranger who would come to visit them”. Unfortunately, for them, the Indians turned aside from a man carrying a basketful of rotting flesh, taking him for Death, but gave affectionate welcome to Death, Himself, in the guise of a pleasing young man.
Tales like these, are as abundant as the tribes of mortals that have walked the earth. Another example, from the Aborigines of New South Wales tells how, in the beginning, the Godsoul forbade the people to go near a certain hollow tree in which bees had made their nest. The men obeyed, but the women wanted the honey. Finally, one of the women hit the tree with an axe, and out flew Death in the form of a bat which now claims all living things bytouching them with its wings.
There are numerous other “names” of Death and stories like these to be found. Although, as mentioned earlier, to include them all in this volume, would make it a task of encyclopedic proportions. Nearly every culture on earth, and no doubt beyond, has had its version of an anthropomorphic Death. A few others we thought merited mention, include one from Melanesia, where Death is called Marawa, the “Giver of Death” and is said to work hand in hand with Qat, “The Giver of Life”.
In Iranian mythology, death was closely associated with time, so that Zurvan, the deification of Time, was regarded as the god of Death. Murdad is another name that we find in the Persian pantheon. And, if we look into Zoroastrianism, we find Murdad’s androgynous counterpart, Mairya.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the Babylonians named the death god Uggae; but he does not figure notably in their mythology under this name. More well known was Mot, whose name, again, means death. Here, as earlier seen, he is aligned to the harvest. He was personified in a rather horrific manner, similar to that mentioned in the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, in which is written, that Enkidu, the unfortunate friend of Gilgamesh dreams of his coming death as seizure by an awful being; “He transformed me, that mine arms were covered with feathers like a bird. He looks at me and leads me to the house of darkness, to the dwelling of Irkalia; To the house from which he who enters never goes forth.”
Another name found in Sumerian-Babylonian mythology is Ereshkigal (Ereshigal), the Sumerian “goddess of Death and the under-world”. She was known as the dark sister to Inanna, fertility queen of heaven and earth, and ruler of the “land from which there is no return”.
Haida, the Canadian Indians of Queen Charlotte Island have a death god duality called Ta’xet and Tia. One is god of violent death, and its counterpart, that of a peaceful passing.
In Falasha lore, the Angel of Death is Surial, “the trumpeter”. It is said that Moses received all his knowledge from Suriel. This “angel” is also mentioned in The Canonical Prayerbook of the
Mandaeans as “Sauriel the Releaser”.
In Christian theology, Death is not graced with a name, but is referred to by description as an “intelligent being” in Job XXVII-22, and in Revelations VI-8, as “sitting on a pale horse and His name was Death”. This is echoed in earlier, Gnostic texts, particularly The Book of Enoch; “And I looked and saw a pale horse and the one seated upon it had the name Death.” In Christianity, the archangel Michael was once considered the original incarnation of the Angel of Death in earlier texts.
To bring encounters such as these into a more contemporary forum, I’d be amiss not to mention one of the more publicized modern day accounts which appeared in Newsday, a well respected New York daily newspaper. The encounter experienced by a well known and respected Long Island doctor is today, a documented case history. Following, is an extraction from Dr. Julian Kirchick’s partially published journal: “It was an apparition, a frightening thing that at first scared me witless! I don’t know whether it was real or not, but I knew it was Death! I was sitting at my picturesque backyard pool, which was surrounded by rose bushes. I was startled by a rustling in the bushes about twenty feet away. I rose to investigate. After taking about two steps, I suddenly stopped short. There was a ghastly intruder, the face of Death! He was dressed in a monk-like robe with a large hood and large sleeves which hung low. The tissue-like skin drawn tightly against the skull…eyes which seemed absent from the hollow eye-sockets seemed to pierce my very soul. His bony hand beckoned to me in a benign gesture. ‘Come to me,’ he seemed to say…” Dr. Kirchick died shortly after this encounter of a illness he was unaware of at the time the experience happened.
Despite enormous cultural differences, the basic countenance of Death is uniquely universal. Often described, as we have seen, as a tall, often winged, dark enshrouded (skeletal or emaciated) being surrounded either by darkness, or by a blue or purplish radiance. His “eyes” are striking, if not mesmeric “pools of black water”, as described in Midrashic legend where awesome depictions of Death’s appearance are rich!
It is curious to note, that in many of these cultural pantheons, Mors (Death) and Amor (Love) are inextricably entwined. The Greek Thanatos and Eros are said to be nearly twins. In many cases Death has been known to appear as a handsome youth, and Love, as the withered corpse. In Hinduism, Yama (Death) and Kama (Love) are said to be in eternal union, much like Shiva and Shakti (his bride) are locked in eternal embrace to keep the universe in balance. This concept is echoed in numerous instances where a personified Death and a personified Love are present.
The power of the archetypal Death entity lies not in the many names given It. These are, of course, man-made, not divinely assigned. The power of the presence of a personified Death lies in the resident and residual energies attached thereto, which have become “energized” over time with psionic vibrations of the thoughts, meditations, evocations, prayers and faith via the millions of impressions directed at, and attributed to the Spirit of Death throughout history. The collective energy of so much focused thought has literally made the formless manifest and accessible.
Considering the way modern society treats D/death as something “evil” or “malevolent”, it is interesting to note that in nearly every one of the preceding examples, Death remains at all times, a legate of the Divine Consciousness. Death is, in principal, the personification of a particular divine aspect of will, developed from a functional expression of the Godsoul that has evolved into a relatively independent personality with a distinct character of Its own. Dion Fortune stated an excellent observation on modern mans view of Death in her 1942 book, Through the Gates of Death; “We must get out of the way of thinking that death is the ultimate tragedy…It is only the man sunk in matter who calls the Angel of Death the great enemy. His esoteric name is the Opener of the gates of Life.”
* Copyright (c) 1996 by Leilah Wendell.
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